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Longtime bishop shares story of destiny

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He sees it as the ultimate defining moment, an unusual circumstance of birth that sealed his fate.

As a newborn, he wasn't expected to survive. He believes that the conditions surrounding his emergency baptism in a hospital room determined his destiny as a Methodist bishop focused on ecumenical relations.

That story explains his life, he said.

Convinced that spirituality transcends any single church or religion, Bishop William Boyd Grove, 83, spent most of his career furthering interdenominational causes and programs, a fulfillment of the future God planned for him.

A Pennsylvania native, he was consecrated as a Methodist bishop in 1980 and served in West Virginia until 1992. After a four-year assignment in Albany, N.Y., he retired here, his adopted state. He serves now as bishop-in-residence at Christ Church United Methodist.

A poet and hymn writer, he penned a hymn that appears in the United Methodist Hymnal. Over the years, he wrote dozens of inspirational Christmas poems.

Nothing lifts his spirits like Christmas. In this Christmas Eve edition of Innerviews, he talks about the hope and optimism that Christmas brings to us every year.

 

"A big part of my personal story relating to my being in the ministry goes back to my baptism. I was born in Johnstown, Pa., April 24, 1929.

"On the fifth day of my life in a Roman Catholic hospital -- we were Methodists -- the doctor told my mother I would not live through the night.

"The nun in charge of that floor told my mother she should have me baptized. So our pastor came by in the middle of the night, and in the presence of this nun and my parents, he baptized me. I believe that through my baptism, I was healed and called to the ministry. Very early in my life I wanted to be a minister.

"That pastor who baptized me was my hero. He paid a lot of attention to me. I wanted to be like him. Our grandmother would sit on a couch, and I would sit on a stool in front of her and preach to her and take an offering.

"There's a lot of ecumenical stuff in my bio, associations with other churches. I think the presence of that nun represented the church that is bigger than Methodism.

"I had a very happy childhood with two younger brothers. Christmas was a big deal. My mother had one sister and three brothers. We often had Christmas with her sister's family. Her sister had two girls, and we had three boys, and we were like brothers and sisters.

"We had a tradition that we still do. On Christmas morning, before you could go downstairs, you had to sit on the steps and drink a glass of orange juice and eat a piece of toast before you could look at your presents. It's like a ceremony, a ritual. Our kids are adults now. They say, 'Why are we doing this?' It's because we always have.

"Because she had three boys and thought we would figure out what we were getting, my mother would put numbers on our packages instead of names, and every year she would forget which numbers she gave us. Somebody would open something, and she would say, 'Oh, no, that's not yours. It's his.' It's still a joke in our family.

"I went to Bethany and majored in English. My wife, Mary Lou, went to Bethany, too. She grew up with me in the same church from the cradle roll on up. We've been married 61 years.

"I went to Drew Theological School in Madison, N.J., then came back to the Pittsburgh Conference, now the Western Pennsylvania Conference, and served as pastor of four churches over 26 years. In 1980, I was consecrated a bishop and assigned to West Virginia.

"By the time I was in the ministry in the 1950s, we had started having Christmas Eve services. I always preached on Christmas Eve, and in more recent years, we always had Holy Communion.

"I was here 12 years. I have loved being a bishop and loved being a bishop in West Virginia. Bishops in our church are elected and assigned regionally. We are in the northeast jurisdiction, which goes from West Virginia to Maine.

"The assigning committee asked if I had a preference for an assignment. I said we would love to go to West Virginia. Within a year here, we decided that this was where we were going to retire.

"We fell in love with the people, the culture and the beauty. After 12 years here, I was bishop in Albany, N.Y., for four years, but we knew we were coming back. We bought this house as we were going to Albany and had friends who house sat for us.

"When I retired in '96 and moved back here, I became the ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops, a new office they created. I was head of the United Methodist Church for Ecumenical Relations, interacting with bishops of other churches.

"I led our delegation to the National World Council of Churches. We have an ongoing formal dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. I chaired that with a Roman Catholic bishop for four years. One of my favorite assignments was leading our delegation to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Zimbabwe in 1998.

"I think all of that comes from that nun who told my mother I should be baptized. She was there when I was baptized, and I think that made me more than a Methodist. It's bigger than us. We're just a little twig on the branch of the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

"When I was 33, we were back home in Johnstown on vacation. My mother sprained her ankle. My dad and I took her to the emergency room at that hospital where I was baptized.

"My dad said, 'Let's go upstairs and see whatever happened to Sister Mary Stevens.' My parents had always revered her. She had also been there when my two brothers were baptized.

"My dad had last seen her when my youngest brother was born 27 years earlier. We got off the elevator on the OB floor. Right ahead of us was the nursery window where the babies are.

"Out comes this little nun dressed in a white habit. She looked 200 years old and probably was. She called my dad by name. Then she said to him, 'This is your son, Billy, isn't it?' She told me to come with her.

"We went over to the windows of the nursery. This is why I say this story is my life. She pointed at a bed and said, 'Dr. Hornick took you out of that bed and examined you and came out and said to your daddy, 'He's going to be all right.' Do you know what your dad said to me? He said, 'God wants him for something.'

"That story explains everything since then. It still takes my breath away. It's holy, awesome. Think of my passion for relations with other churches. This explains it.

"A hymn I wrote is in our big Methodist hymnal. It was written in 1980 for the marriage of my daughter. I've written a lot of hymns. That was the first one. When this hymnal was adopted, the hymnal committee felt it was worthy.

"I'd always written poetry, but I'd never written a hymn. I thought, poetry is for people, hymns are for God, and I didn't feel what I wrote was good enough for God. But my daughter's husband is a musician, and they asked me to write a hymn for their wedding.

"All the years when I was an active bishop, I wrote a Christmas poem every year and mailed it to all our churches. That's a unique thing about me, the Christmas poetry.

"Bishop Lyght was bishop of West Virginia from 2004 to this year. He was ill for his last year. In November 2011, he asked to retire eight months early. The Council of Churches named me to fill the vacancy until we got his successor. So from Jan. 1 to Sept 1, I was again the bishop. I loved it.

"The country is very divided. It's very depressing at times. But I think God is bigger than this. I leave the future to him. I'm basically optimistic, a pessimist in the short run but an optimist in the long run.

"Christmas was a one time thing about one baby and it still is. It comes around every year, and no matter how bad things are, it again blesses us and points us to what is better and beyond. By beyond, I mean that there is something that transcends all this, and ultimately, we are safe in God's love. I really believe that.

"The country is a mess. But here comes Christmas. We need it every year. It lifts us. People say that in January, we will get crabby again. We will. But Christmas reminds us of better things. It reminds us of what is possible. Christmas represents what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every year, Christmas does its thing.

"What's next for me is I'm going to act my age. Erik Erikson, the great psychologist, described seven stages of human life. The task of infancy is to learn trust, and it is learned primarily from the mother. The lesson of young adulthood is autonomy, to become in charge of yourself. And so on.

"The last stage is old age. The task then is integrity, meaning integration. You put your whole life together and accept that, warts and all, this has been my life, and you offer it up.

"The task of the last stage of life is to say yes to the life you have had. To the life I have had, I say, 'Yes!'"Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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